Defense Finally Responds
For 45 exasperating minutes, the Bucs' defense had no answers Sunday. Questions abounded for Monte Kiffin's unit, the linchpin of Tampa Bay's success since 1997. The Saints had rolled up 328 yards and run off 57 plays, keeping drives alive by converting on nine of 14 third- down situations. Aaron Brooks had completed 21 of 33 passes and Tampa Bay defenders generated no sacks and one turnover while New Orleans built a 20-10 advantage. But just as the Saints appeared ready to apply the crushing blow, the Bucs responded with the kind of defensive effort their fans expected from the start.
The return to form began late in the third quarter, when Al Singleton pressured Brooks into a misguided pass that fluttered into the arms of fellow outside linebacker Derrick Brooks at the Tampa Bay 23. ``That wasn't Buc ball at the beginning,'' said Singleton, who also hurried Dirk Johnson into a 10-yard punt in the second period. ``We had fundamental breakdowns and our tackling wasn't sure. But we fought hard and fought back. If this defense takes anything positive from a tough loss, that's it.''
New Orleans emerged with a 26-20 overtime victory in the season opener, but the Bucs' defense regained some momentum for Sunday's game at Baltimore. The Saints punted on each of their final five possessions, gaining only 40 yards in 21 snaps. Aaron Brooks misfired on six of his nine pass attempts in the fourth quarter and overtime as New Orleans failed on five of six third-down opportunities. ``We started attacking more,'' said free safety Dexter Jackson, who had eight tackles. ``We went right at them and played more aggressively. The Saints had us figured out at the start, then we shut them down. This loss hurts very bad because it's our first game and we have high expectations. But give New Orleans credit - they had a great game plan.''
Kiffin was proud of the comeback but disturbed about a sluggish start that saw the Saints reel off a combined 24 plays on their first two possessions. ``In the beginning, we let the run game go and we had a lot of sloppy tackling,'' strong safety John Lynch said. ``They made more plays than us and they came out with the win.''
Tampa Bay's pass rush was negligible through three quarters, raising the pressure on a winded secondary to cover a group of fleet receivers. When Boo Williams caught a 32-yard touchdown pass late in the opening half, Brooks enjoyed superb protection. The Bucs tried to mix up their coverages, blitzing Lynch and cornerback Ronde Barber early in the third period, but Brooks threw a 13-yard pass to Donte' Stallworth out of the shotgun on third-and-eight. Three plays later, the first- round pick out of Tennessee caught a 41-yard scoring pass, prompting rare boos from the home crowd directed toward a proud defensive unit. ``We had to give ourselves a chance to win,'' defensive tackle Warren Sapp said. ``We fought our way back and had a golden opportunity, but we just didn't do it. We will learn from this.''
Ira Kaufman The Tampa Tribune September 2002